Irrfan Khan dies at 53: A rare and magnetic talent that held filmmakers, writers and audiences in thrall
With films like The Lunchbox, Irrfan khan reminded his fans that in this new mature phase of his career, the possibilities were endless.
In November 2010, Adam Rapp, a Pulitzer-winning playwright and screenwriter, was interviewed by The New York Times about a multi-episode script he had just written for In Treatment, the HBO show where psychologist Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) conducted weekly therapy sessions with a revolving cast of patients.
For the third season, Rapp had created a new character Sunil, a recently widowed 50-something from Kolkata, who had moved in with his son (and his American daughter-in-law), and found it difficult to come to terms with American culture — and what he perceived as his white daughter-in-law’s callousness. Rapp spoke excitedly about the chance to work with “one of the greatest actors alive” — a prospect that also got his fellow Pulitzer-winner Jhumpa Lahiri on board as consultant.
Rapp was talking, of course, about Irrfan Khan.
The 53-year-old actor, who died in Mumbai earlier today after being admitted to the ICU a days ago due to a colon infection, was the kind of magnetic talent that attracted — and enthralled — some of the finest writers, filmmakers, and artists around the world. In a career spanning over three decades, Khan acted in some of the most accomplished Indian movies of the 21st century (Maqbool, Paan Singh Tomar, The Lunchbox, Piku), and also gained international acclaim for his roles in films like The Warrior, Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi, The Namesake, New York, I Love You, and others. In 2018, Khan had been diagnosed with a rare neuroendocrine tumour.
Khan made his debut with Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988) as a young man who writes letters for his fellow chawl-dwellers, although his scenes were cut from the final version. Veteran Basu Chatterjee’s Kamla Ki Maut (1989) would eventually mark his first onscreen appearance. Throughout the '90s, Khan’s career, in his own words, was “stuck” — mostly small roles in projects by non-commercial/indie filmmakers like Govind Nihalani (Drishti) and Mani Kaul (The Cloud Door), plus a whole lot of television.
1993 saw Khan as part of an ensemble cast in the popular show Banegi Apni Baat. In 1995-96, he played a psychopathic killer in the Star show Darr, which also starred Kay Kay Menon. The show that really explored Khan’s impossibly malleable range and his undeniable screen presence, however, was Star Bestsellers (1999-2000), an anthology-format show featuring some of the best young directors of the time (Anurag Kashyap, Hansal Mehta, Sriram Raghavan, and Tigmanshu Dhulia all directed episodes).
All of this changed with The Warrior (2001), British director Asif Kapadia’s stylish, elegiac story of a war-weary soldier trying to give up the fighting life. It won a BAFTA in 2001, and effectively announced Khan’s arrival as a major actor. 2003 became his watershed Bollywood year — two of his greatest-ever roles happened this year. The first was Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Haasil, a bruising, blood-soaked, darkly funny political thriller set amidst the campus politics of Allahabad University. Khan’s role as Rannvijay Singh, a swaggering, silver-tongued, unscrupulous student leader, earned him a legion of fans and critical acclaim from all quarters.
The second was Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool, which premiered at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival (it would only release in India in 2004), a Noirish Macbeth adaptation, the first of what would become the director’s Shakespeare trilogy (Omkara and Haider being the other two; Khan also played a small but unforgettable role in the latter). In Bhardwaj’s telling, Macbeth becomes Maqbool, the conflicted right-hand man of Abbaji (Pankaj Kapur) the most feared (and fastidious) gangster in Mumbai.
Maqbool will probably go down as Khan’s signature role — the eyes, the intensity, the uncanny ability to go from menacing to vulnerable within moments. Khan held nothing back in a performance for the ages.
The levels of collaborative alchemy that he and Tabu (who played Lady Macbeth) achieved in Maqbool have yet to be surpassed in Bollywood, it is safe to say. One particular scene where Khan is taunted by Tabu at gunpoint still sends shivers down the spine after all these years; such is the intensity, the emotional stakes involved. The duo would reunite in Mira Nair’s 2007 adaptation of the Jhumpa Lahiri novel The Namesake; once again, they did not disappoint.
2008 brought with it Slumdog Millionaire and Oscar glory, and Khan found himself overwhelmed with Hollywood offers. During this phase, the first flush of his stardom (which culminated in high-profile roles in mainstream Hollywood blockbusters like The Amazing Spider-Man and Inferno), there was a perception that Khan was best suited to larger-than-life roles like Maqbool or Haasil, where his natural charisma and his ever-expressive eyes could take over the show, so to speak. Only a year ago, Khan had delivered another monstrously entertaining performance in this vein — the biopic Pan Singh Tomar, about a star-athlete-turned-dacoit.
Khan now set about disproving this perception comprehensively. In Anurag Basu’s Life in a... Metro, he excelled in a comic role opposite Konkona Sensharma. The scene where the two of them shout off their frustrations atop a Mumbai roof remains a classic. His role as a sweet-natured, mild-mannered widower in The Lunchbox (2013) was classic Irrfan — it underlined Khan’s versatility, and reminded his fans that in this new mature phase of his career, the possibilities were endless. Limitations that applied to most actors seemed laughable in the face of Khan’s talent.
Unfortunately for us all, we will never know what Khan would have done in his 60s. A keen reader since his National School of Drama days (his wife, Sutapa, was a batchmate), it is not inconceivable that he would have turned his intellect towards filmmaking, or writing a top-notch memoir. Either way, it would have been impeccably crafted — and immediately distinguishable from the crowd. After all, the man himself had once said, “The day I become conventional, something inside me will die”.
He lived by those words till the very end.
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